Why Kenyans Make Such Great Runners

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

Max Fisher examines why Kenyans make such great runners and declares it a story of genes and cultures — which really should go without saying:

The statistics are hard to ignore. This medium-size country of 41 million dominates the world in competitive running. Pick any long-distance race. You’ll often find that up to about 70 or 80 percent of its winners since the late 1980s, when East African nutrition and technology started catching up with the West, have been from Kenya. Since 1988, for example, 20 of the 25 first-place men in the Boston Marathon have been Kenyan. Kenyan women appear to have had a later start, winning none of marathons before 2000 (possibly due to discriminatory laws and a tradition of forcing girls into marriages, both of which were partially rolled back by 1990s reforms) and 9 of 13 since then. Of the top 25 male record holders for the 3000-meter steeplechase, 18 are Kenyan. Seven of the last 8 London marathons were won by Kenyans, and the sole outlier was from neighboring Ethiopia*. Their record in the Olympic men’s marathon is more uneven, having placed in the top three in only four of the last six races. Still, not bad for one country. And even more amazing is that three-fourths of the Kenyan champions come from an ethnic minority of 4.4. million, or 0.06% of global population.

It turns out that Kenyans’ success may be innate. Two separate, European-led studies in a small region in western Kenya, which produces most of the race-winners, found that young men there could, with only a few months training, reliably outperform some of the West’s best professional runners. In other words, they appeared to have a physical advantage that is common to their community, making it probably genetic. The studies found significant differences in body mass index and bone structure between the Western pros and the Kenyan amateurs who had bested them. The studied Kenyans had less mass for their height, longer legs, shorter torsos, and more slender limbs. One of the researchers described the Kenyan physical differences as “bird-like,” noting that these traits would make them more efficient runners, especially over long distances.

Surprisingly, Western popular writing about Kenyans’ running success seems to focus less on these genetic distinctions and more on cultural differences. For years, the cultural argument has been that Kenyans become great runners because they often run several miles to and from school every day. But, about a decade ago, someone started asking actual Kenyans if this was true, and it turned out to be a merely a product of Western imaginations: 14 of 20 surveyed Kenyan race-winners said they’d walked or ridden the bus to school, like normal children do. Another cultural argument says they run barefoot, which develops good habits, but if this were true then surely the far more populated countries of South Asia, where living without shoes is also common, would dominate over Kenyans. Another ascribes it to the “simple food” of Kenya, but this again is true of many parts of the world, and Kenya’s not-so-great health record suggests the country has not discovered the secret to great nutrition. And there is a cringe-inducing theory, still prevalent, that Kenyans’ history as herders means they get practice running as they chase their sheep across the countryside.

I’m not sure why that last hypothesis is cringe-inducing.

Here’s where things get interesting:

In 1990, the Copenhagen Muscle Research Center compared post-pubescent schoolboys there to Sweden’s famed national track team (before Kenya and a few other African countries began dominating international racing events in the late 1980s, Scandinavians were the most reliable winners). The study found that boys on the high school track team in Iten, Kenya, consistently outperformed the professional Swedish runners. The researchers estimated that the average Kalenjin could outrun 90% of the global population, and that at least 500 amateur high school students in Iten alone could defeat Sweden’s greatest professional runner at the 2,000-meter.

A 2000 Danish Sports Science Institute investigation reproduced the earlier study, giving a large group of Kalenjin boys three months of training and then comparing them to Thomas Nolan, a Danish track superstar. When the Kalenjin boys trounced him, the researchers — who had also conducted a number of physical tests and compared them against established human averages — concluded that Kalenjins must have an inborn, physical, genetic advantage. They observed a higher number of red blood cells (which lent new credence to the theory that elevation makes their bodies more effective oxygen-users) but, in their conclusions, emphasized the “bird-like legs” that make running less energy-intensive and give their stride exceptional efficiency.

As Alex Hutchinson points out, the Scandinavians definitely were not the “most reliable winners” before the late 1980s, and there’s no Danish “track superstar” named Thomas Nolan:

This is the problem with Internet research. The source linked in the passage above is an AFP newswire write-up from 2000, which itself was cribbed from a Guardian article that described a TV documentary on Kenyan runners. Talk about broken telephone! The “track superstar” Thomas Nolan is a total fiction — no one by that name has ever ranked in the top few hundred in the world. I suspect it refers to Thomas Nolan Hansen, who at the time was a middle-aged Danish coach and whose lifetime best performance over 5,000 meters was apparently 14:56, which would class him as a very good high-school runner in the United States.

As for the study itself, I suspect he’s referring to this one (on which, you’ll notice, “T Nolan” is listed as an author). The average 5K times were 20.25 minutes for Kenyan kids from “towns,” and 18.42 minutes for Kenyan kids from “villages.” (Hang on, does this mean that village kids have better genetics?) The fastest time recorded in the whole study was 16:16. That’s still a decent time for a high-schooler — but it’s not what you expect would be required to beat a “Danish track superstar.” (The Danish national record, for what it’s worth, is 13:25.)

The Wall Street Journal happens to have a piece on Somali-born distance-runner Abdi Abdirhahman, who will be competing in his fourth Olympics, despite not really training that hard:

A four-time national champion at the 10,000 meters, Abdirahman never ran track in high school, starting only as a freshman at Tucson’s Pima Community College. Showing up for his first practice in jeans and boots, he nearly beat the team’s top runner in a five-mile race.

By all accounts, success never tempted him to take himself too seriously. His college friend, Duncan, recalls a New Year’s Eve party during which Abdirahman ran sprints through a restaurant without a shirt. “We got into a lot of trouble,” Duncan said.

After exhausting his eligibility at Arizona, Abdirahman was living on $200 a month until a Nike endorsement provided him with $30,000. That was supposed to help him train, but he also used it to buy his first truck, a Ford Explorer, and to finance his social life. “All I did was hang out with my friends and take them out to dinner all the time,” he said. “It was the best.”

“Abdi is 35 going on 18,” said Dave Murray, his longtime coach.

Yet Murray adds that Abdirahman’s relatively modest training regimen has limited injuries while preserving the athlete’s passion for running. “You have to enjoy what you’re doing. If it’s drudgery to get out of bed to go for a 13-mile run, that’s not going to help you in the long run,” Murray said.

In recent years, Abdirahman said he’s actually matured, in part thanks to a close relationship with Bernard Lagat, a two-time Olympic medalist in the 1,500 meters. “He’s a serious guy in training, but sometimes you need to give him a little motivation,” said Lagat, who also lives in Tucson. “‘Hey, Abdi! You’re goofing off too much! No more parties on Friday night!’”

Lagat paused. “My son loves Abdi so much because Abdi is like another child.”

Jon Entine’s Taboo (2001) discusses East-African dominance of long-distance running — and (genetically) West-African dominance of sprinting.

(Hat tip to HBD Chick for the first article.)

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